In The Wake of #MeToo, What Protections Does Nevada Law Give Workers?


Damian Dovarganes/AP

The sexual harassment and assault allegations against Steve Wynn have drawn attention to the responsibility employers in Nevada's large hospitality industry have in protecting their employees.

Even though Las Vegas has an anything-goes reputation, Dana Cotham from UNLV's Harrah College of Hospitality says it doesn't mean it is exempt from laws designed to protect employees.

She said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is where the idea of sexual harassment at work was first codified, but it wasn't until the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlined rules for harassment that employees could find protection against it.

She said the place a person works does not exempt an employer from protecting his or her employee -- whether that is a nightclub with scantily clad go-go dancers and cocktail waitresses or a law office in downtown Las Vegas -- from harassment.

"Not legal," she told State of Nevada. "It doesn't matter what the work environment is."

Both federal law and state law cover all businesses with 15 employees or more.

While the #MeToo movement gained steam when high-profile actresses came forward with horrific stories of harassment and assault by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, Cotham pointed out statistically low-wage workers are more likely to be victims -- and Las Vegas has many of those.

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As a result, Las Vegas has a higher incident of harassment, but not because of the "Sin City" image.

"It's worse here because hospitality … is the largest industry in the United States and you have a lot of low-wage workers within that industry," she said.

Cotham said companies are not just liable for the conduct of supervisors and co-workers, but also patrons. She said if a guest at a hotel or casino harasses a cocktail waitress or maid, the employer could be held liable.

"The law does not allow the owner to avoid liability simply because it is [a] non-employee harassing," she said.

But there is a scale when it comes to harassment, Cotham said. While all forms of harassment can be offensive and hurtful, there is a legal difference between someone making a crude comment and physically assaulting someone.

Cotham said an employer and the EEOC will use a kind of reverse scale when determining how to address an incident, using the two factors of frequency and severity. 

For instance, if someone makes a comment that creates a hostile work environment, it may not be actionable because it was made once.

"If it ended up being one comment -- you look really hot -- I don't know if they would move forward with that," Cotham said.

But if a person physically assaults a victim, that falls much higher on the severity scale. Even if it only happened once, it would be actionable. And the same is true if the crude comments were made constantly, she said.

No matter severity or frequency, she said employers should always investigate allegations of harassment. 

"They should always investigate it -- whether the EEOC would investigate it or not," she said.

From Desert Companion: The Law: Sudden Scandal, Slow Change

(Editor's note: This conversation originally aired March 2018)


Dana Cotham, associate professor in residence, UNLV Harrah College of Hospitality

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